Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.
A short trip between continents kicks off a long journey through history
CANAKKALE, Turkey — The boat’s engine roars, kicking up water and easing the behemoth ferry into the narrow channel that separates the European continent from the Asian.
The Dardanelles Strait has served as a launch pad for some of history’s most ambitious characters. The Persian Emperor Xerxes had built a bridge of boats here to usher his army across the strait and into battle with the Greeks. Leander swam this channel nightly to be with the priestess, Hero. In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great and his army crossed here to conquer the Persian Empire.
As a staging ground for the bold, however, the Dardanelles — or the Hellespont, as it used to be known — has produced decidedly mixed results. Soon after Xerxes left his army to return to Babylon, in modern-day Iraq, the Greeks defeated his forces. Leander died swimming the channel, leaving a grieving Hero to kill herself.
Alexander used the Dardanelles to begin one of history’s great conquests. After crossing the strait near Canakkale, he would never again set foot on European soil.
Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae who commanded the attack on Troy, had declared Asia “a land won by the spear,” according to Alexander biographer Lewis V. Cummings. Alexander would go on to prove the assertion true.
It was Alexander’s 11-year conquest, between 334 and 323 B.C. that had brought me to this point — sharing a belching ferry ride this month across the Dardanelles with a gaggle of school girls giggling at the sight of a passing pod of dolphins. It was his crossing here that also made me realize, with a laugh, that my own ambitious undertaking — to walk 2,000-plus miles in the footsteps of Alexander as he set about redrawing the maps of the ancient world — lacked what would, back in the day, have been considered essentials (an army of many thousands of men, horses and supplies for at least a year).
Do they still say the pen is mightier than the sword?
Many days' journey, but little left to see of legendary Troy
POLATLI, Turkey — Twenty-nine hours in a bus. When you travel by yourself, you have plenty of time to do the math. In five days, I have zigzagged across the Anatolian Peninsula, endured flare ups (and throw-ups), countless low battery messages on my computer and iPod, and some very mediocre roadside food.
I had come to Turkey to begin an eight-month, seven-country journey on foot through the Middle East, rediscovering the route that Alexander the Great followed as he dismantled the mighty Persian Empire.
With eight days to make it to my starting point, Payas in southern Turkey, I decided to bus through Anatolia and visit a handful of sites visited by the future conquerer himself.
After crossing the Dardanelles in Canakkale, northwestern Turkey, I headed to the site of ancient Troy.
Before squaring off against the Persians for the first time in battle, Alexander took time off to visit Troy, which by the fourth century B.C. had already left its days of dominance behind it.
But Troy’s place in history, as strong in Alexander’s time as it is in ours, is what led the young Macedonian king to pay tribute.
“Remember,” local guide and author Mustafa Askin told me, “Alexander thought he was the reincarnation of Achilles.”
There isn’t much left at Troy, save for a handful of ramparts and a few other rock mounds. Overlooking the plain that leads to the sea, though, one can almost envision the sprawling Greek army laying siege to the city.
After leaving Troy, I took an overnight bus to the town of Polatli, near the site of ancient Gordion, which, nestled in a sleepy village amid the rolling hills of central Anatolia, is the site of the famous Gordian knot.
According to legend, an oracle once tied succession to the throne of the Phrygian empire to a common man driving an ox cart. That man, Gordias, was made king and his cart placed in a local temple. Whoever could untie the knot binding the yoke to the cart would rule Asia.
While barnstorming through Anatolia, Alexander visited the temple and cut the knot with his sword.
I arrived in the town of Polatli around 7:30 a.m. After some hassle, I persuaded a local, for a small fee, to shuttle me 20 minutes across the countryside to the site of the ancient city.
When we arrived, none of the sites had yet opened. After waiting about 45 minutes in the silence of his van (neither of us spoke each other’s language), I toured a small museum and the tomb of King Midas. We then drove to the other side of town to see the excavated ruins of the old town.
The walk in Alexander's footsteps begins
PAYAS, Turkey — Today I stood on the plain of Issus, where Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius III faced for the first time in battle. From here, I’ll be proceeding on foot, sleeping where I am welcomed, reporting for you on the historical legacy of Alexander the Great and the modern issues facing this region of the world.
Despite vows that I would not spend another minute on a bus, I suspect it won’t be long before I begin fantacizing about motorized transportation. I mean, come on — even Alexander had a horse to ride.